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It was not so long ago that she first came to me, that night backstage after the play, in the flickering gaslight of my dressing room. I sat before my vanity, clad only in corset and petticoats. I used a small cloth to wipe the heavy stage make-up from my eyes, and when I opened them and peered into the mirror, she was there, staring at me. I was startled because I'd heard no one come in, no door opening, no rustle of skirts or creak of shoes on the wooden floor. I hurriedly placed my hand over my exposed bosom and dropped the soiled make-up cloth on the floor.
"How did you get in here?"
"I watched the play tonight, and you were quite wonderful," she said in a whisper. "I have seen it every night. I do so love Romeo and Juliet, and you were a fine Juliet."
"Thank you," I said, knowing I was too old for the part, yet happy to have it. She smiled and I was captured by her beauty. She had luminous gold hair, and a radiance about her, ethereal as smoke.
"I did not hear you come in. You must excuse my disarray." I fidgeted with the make-up jars on my table. She took a few steps forward, and I noticed the deep blue of her eyes, her Cupid's bow lips. I forgot about her entrance, or lack thereof. Indeed, the closer she came, the less important it seemed.
"So, you've seen the play every night? I am always grateful for such appreciation. I am so glad we were able to entertain you." I stood up and reached for my dressing gown, turning away from her as I slipped it on. I was not embarrassed, but neither could I assume her romantic proclivities were the same as mine. I had made such assumptions before, to my everlasting regret. Once, aftermany happy months of socially acceptable hand-holding, cheek-kissing and walking arm-in-arm, I endeavored to discern a certain lady friend's true romantic nature, so I kissed her on the mouth. She slapped my face soundly and ran away. I never saw her again. But I had to wonder about my pretty visitor; did she see the play every night for the play itself, or for me?
Oh, such vanity shall not go unpunished, my conscience quickly told me.
I turned around to face her, but to my astonishment, she was gone. I ran to the door and flung it open, looking down the hall. I saw only a prop man struggling with some scenery and the cleaning woman setting her bucket on the floor. The girl was quite gone, but where, or how, I did not know.
I would know, shortly.
Over lacy drawers and silk chemise, I hooked up my corset, then pulled on stockings and garters. I had dismissed my dresser early, feeling a desire for solitude as I dressed with methodical ritual after another successful night on the stage. I strapped on the bustle, then petticoats one, two and three, followed by skirt, bodice, hat and gloves. I intended to have a cup of tea at Madam Jaquard's tearoom before I went home. I picked up my purse from the vanity, then retrieved my cloak from where it lay draped over the dressing screen. I placed it on my shoulders and secured the clasp, whirling around to face the door.
There she was. My heart jumped--I knew not whether it was shock, or gladness.
"My God! You startled me. How do you get in here without my knowing?"
"I'm sorry," she offered, somewhat shyly. "I have a light step." Her eyes were deep cobalt and wide with innocence, or so I chose to believe. I wanted to believe in the possibility of making her mine and hoped her innocence would allow me to advance my romantic intentions.
"I saw the play again tonight," she said. Her lovely hair was a cascade of curls, caught up in the front with a ribbon. "You were wonderful."
"How kind of you to say so." I smiled and idly patted my coiffure. "Perhaps you would care to join me at Madame Jaquard's Parlor for tea?"
Awkward silence. Perhaps she struggled with what she would say. I feared her answer would be no, but I hoped nevertheless.
She finally shook her head. "I'm afraid I cannot accept your invitation. I am most sorry."
And truly, she looked to be.
I was disappointed. I had so looked forward to getting to know her better. As it was, I knew nothing, not even her name.
"Well, perhaps I could call on you sometime, or you could call on me. We could take tea at my townhouse."
Her eyes widened, her brows lifted. I hoped I hadn't been too bold.
"I would love to have tea with you," she said at last, and my heart soared. "Perhaps here, after the performance."
Here, in my dressing room? It was more than I hoped for.
"By all means, that would be perfect."
She nodded. "When?"
"Tomorrow, after the performance," I said quickly, before she changed her mind.
"Very well, then, tomorrow."
She stepped backward, away from me, as I swept by her in my heavy skirts. I opened the door to let her out. It was true she had a light step, for I heard no sound of heels on the hardwood floor. Not even the air stirred as she slipped by me.
"Allow me to take you home," I offered as I stepped out into the hallway and locked my dressing room door. "I am taking a carriage anyway, we might as well share, and don't worry about the fare."
But when I turned around, she was gone. Again, I'd heard nothing; no footsteps, no doors opening or closing. I was intrigued where most, I suppose, would be wary. Indeed, she moved like a ghost.
But I was not afraid of ghosts.
It took an inordinate amount of time to decide on the dress I would wear. I had my dresser lace my corset exceptionally tight, pulling in my waist to the tiniest of proportions. Next came the dress, but it had to be right for the occasion. I started with my best afternoon tea dress, but the hour was late to be taking tea, so I decided I'd wear my evening gown. No, too ostentatious, I realized, and too much décolletage, so I changed to a visiting dress, but that was too somber. I finally settled on a high-necked dress suitable for any formal occasion, and one of my favorites. The bodice and skirt were made of midnight blue brocaded velvet, with a front skirt of cerulean satin draped in poufs. The heavy brocaded skirt was pulled back at the front and sides and held in place from top to bottom by black Chantilly lace formed into butterfly bows. The bodice had epaulets of more black lace, with long tassels of faceted jet beads in front and back. The skirt trailed out behind me in a long train. I wore light blue kid leather gloves and slippers. As the time approached, I rouged my cheeks and lips once more and checked my hair, piled high in curls.
I had asked the theater housekeeper to set up a small table and I used one of my shawls for a tablecloth. I brought my best tea service from home and I borrowed the night watchman's little coal-burning brazier to heat up the water. I lit the candles and turned to check my face once more in the mirror. When I turned back around, there she was, standing just inside the door. I was getting used to her strange, silent entrances, all the while knowing I shouldn't.
She wore a dress of deep purple velvet, trimmed in lavender ruffles. Her golden hair was in ringlets that framed her doll-like porcelain face.
"I'm so glad that you came," I said, feeling awkward without knowing why. She looked beautiful.
"I am so glad you invited me." She seemed uneasy, tentative. I had to make her feel comfortable.
"Please, sit down." I pulled out a chair for her. She sat down daintily. I seated myself, smoothed out my skirts, gracefully reached for the teapot.
I poured the tea. "Please, tell me your name."
"Amberlene," she said shyly.
"What a beautiful name. I don't believe I've ever heard it before."
I offered her a cup of the tea. "Of course, mine is just a stage name, but it serves its purpose well." I put a teaspoon of sugar into my tea.
"Oh, I think your name is quite glamorous." She leaned forward over the teacup. "I would take such a name, if I could."
"Well then, perhaps you should. A woman must be her own creation."
"Oh yes, you are quite right. But I believe many women would not agree, and few men would, surely." She looked at me most earnestly, as if she wanted me to verify her statement with my assent. I considered her words carefully, not wanting to dissuade her, but wanting to know more. Could it possibly be that I had found a woman of my own true belief?
I took a long sip of tea, formulating my words all the while.
"Do you believe then in women's suffrage?"
She hesitated, then faced me squarely.
"I do." It was all she said, but it was enough.
"Then, my dear Amberlene, we are already fast friends." I raised my cup in salute.
She smiled. Oh, long had I waited to see such a smile, for the single purpose that inspired it was as dear to my heart as the girl herself had become. But there remained one final question to be answered, one more hurdle to clear before my joy could be unleashed.
How to broach the topic? My mind raced with words gone wild. It was such a delicate thing and I did not want to appear crass. I most certainly did not want to scare her away.
I suddenly thought of a way.
"So, a beautiful young lady such as yourself must have a beau, a sweetheart. Or perhaps many?" I hid behind my teacup.
She frowned. Oh, no, I thought, I had done exactly what I had feared doing--I'd frightened her.
"I apologize, if I have overstepped my bounds and broached a topic unsuitable for our short acquaintance. Please forgive me." I reached out my hand to her to show my earnestness in seeking absolution, but she did not respond in like kind. I knew I had ruined our blossoming friendship, but not why such an innocent question should upset her so.
Perhaps she did not know her own mind on the subject? But a young woman so adamant about women's suffrage was an unlikely shrinking violet. Yet, I may have misunderstood or made assumptions regarding her intentions in seeking me out.
I withdrew my hand.
"Amberlene, please don't think ill of me. I just assumed that a lovely young lady such as yourself must have many admirers." How I wished that I could reveal that I was one.
Staring at the tabletop, she sighed.
"No, I am not upset about your question. I just don't know how to answer it."
"Perhaps you should ask me the same question, then we shall be equal." I tilted my head slightly, hoping to appear more earnest.
"Oh, I cannot begin to wonder at the many steadfast admirers you must have, being such a fine and beautiful actress." She clasped her small hands together under her chin, her fine brows arched high.
I smiled. This was my cue. As an actress, I knew when to speak my lines. But these words were not lines of someone else's dialog; these I would speak from my heart.
"I suppose I do have admirers, for there are men who've sent me flowers after a performance or waited outside the stage door just to kiss my hand. But their affections move me not."
I stood up and walked over to her, aware of the beating of my heart, of my skirts rustling, of my steps on the wooden floor. She watched me move closer.
"I receive letters and flowers and declarations of undying love, but never from one who stirs my heart. You..." I reached out to touch her shoulder, "...are one who stirs my heart."
As my hand went out to touch her, she jumped up from her chair. The chair should have slid backward, but it didn't. It struck me as odd, but I didn't care. The pain of rejection was overwhelming.
"I'm sorry," she stammered. "Oh, I am so sorry." She looked around as if seeking escape. I obliged her by opening the door. She hurried to it, but stopped before me and spoke.
"Please, it isn't what you think. I-I do ... feel..." Her eyes glowed the intense blue of a gas jet flame. "I want ... oh, I can't say it! I must go!" She ran to the door. My mind went reeling, taking in her words.
As she passed me, there was no rustle of skirts, no sound of heel hitting floor. Not the slightest bit of air was disturbed. And, most shocking of all, part of her appeared to go right through me!
But it couldn't be true. It wasn't possible. My eyes tricked me; the light was strange. I pushed it out of my mind as her words took over my entire being. Was she trying to tell me that she felt the same way? My heart careened with joy. I followed her out the door.
I hurried down the hallway, holding up my skirts as I ran. But I did not see her. She must have slipped out by the stage door. She had made her escape, but her words echoed in my heart and mind.
Oh, my darling Amberlene!
I had no address, no last name, to search for her with. I didn't know if I would ever see her again. The waiting and wondering was torture.
And the hope--so much hope I thought my heart would burst.
I was in love, so I pushed aside any doubts about her strange comings and goings. Her apparent immateriality was only a trick of the light. A week went by and I began to despair of ever seeing her again.
After the Saturday evening performance, I was preparing to go out to a reception for our company of actors at the Countess of Roth's. I wore my best evening gown, a lilac and lavender creation, with ruffles of silk and shiny satin ribbons and bows, frothy waterfalls of fine lace, and pink roses. I was putting the finishing touch to my coiffure when I saw her in my full-length mirror, a beautiful phantom in the night.
"Amberlene," I said, "I will never get used to your mysterious ways."
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to frighten you. You look so lovely. Are you going out?"
"Yes," I said, almost regretting it. I had wanted to see her for so long, and now she was here ... but I was obligated to attend the reception. Then I thought of a way to do both.
"Come with me tonight," I said quickly, without thinking on it too long. "I'm sure I have a dress you could wear, with a few tucks and pins. It would be wonderful to have you with me."
She was silent. I feared she would say no. I thought of all the ways I could convince her.
"There is nothing to fear. I could introduce you as a visiting cousin..."
She just stared at me.
"If you like, we could stop at your home and get the dress you wore to our tea. It was fine enough for tonight. With a necklace and some earrings it would be perfect..."
I reached out a hand, hoping she would take it this time. "Please come with me," I begged.
A look of almost palpable sadness drew across her face. My hopeful heart sank.
"I cannot go with you tonight," she finally said.
"But why not?"
She hesitated before she spoke, as if she had to choose her words carefully.
"I cannot go where you go, not the way you want me to go. You see ... I don't come here, well, quite the way others do. I don't know how to tell you..." She was uneasy, tentative. Neither of us spoke for a few seconds, as I simply didn't know what to say. Finally, she looked straight at me, with a kind of resolve.
"Do you understand the world of the ethers?" Her eyes were so wide and blue, no sky or sea could compare.
"Ethers?" I shook my head, uncertain of her meaning.
She looked at the floor, clasping her hands behind her back. "The world of spirits, I mean."
I squinted at her with incredulity. "Spirits? Ghosts? Are you telling me you're a ghost?"
She twitched in apparent discomfort. "In a way, yes." She did not look up.
I was stunned, disappointed. Surely she was not of sound mind. My heart shattered. This was worse than I feared. I turned away from her. I did not want her to see me weep.
I knew I had to dismiss her.
"I'm sorry, but you can't come backstage anymore." I didn't want to turn her away, but I had to believe it was for the better.
"Oh, I knew you wouldn't understand. I should've known you wouldn't listen. But it's true, I am not corporeal." She reached out to me. "Try to touch me," she said pleadingly. "Try to take my hand."
Tears soaked my eyes, blinding me. "You must go," I said, trying to sound stern. "Please, just go."
But she did not. Again, she beseeched me. "Touch me."
I slowly turned around to face her once more. I knew my eyes were red from weeping.
"Touch me." She looked at me unwaveringly, and continued to hold out her hand. Thinking she was quite mad, but wanting to expedite her departure, I reached out and took her hand.
Or tried to.
"Oh, my God." My hand went right through hers, for it was intangible as smoke.
"My God." I snatched my hand away, held it protectively against my chest. I stared at her, gaped-mouth, unbelieving of my own eyes and tactile senses. How could it be so? How could she be a ghost? Certainly, there were no such things as ghosts, spirits, non-corporeal beings.
Perhaps I was going mad.
I could say nothing. I was immobile.
Finally, she spoke, looking me squarely in the eye. "I can only tell you the truth, for I had hoped to become your beloved friend."
Beloved friend! My dream come true! But what would come of it now?
"It is strange, I know, but this is the only way I can come here, or anywhere, outside of my room. My body is a prisoner there, but my spirit roams the world freely. What you see is how I wish I were. It took me a long time to achieve this, but the only life I have is when I'm free of my body." Her gaze fell again to the floor. "And I do so wish we could be friends."
How could this be true? And yet, how could it not? I saw my own hand pass through hers. A woman of the ethers it appeared she was.
"What good will it do me to either believe or not believe? And how can I be friends with a ghost?"
"I am like a ghost, but I am real, I am alive. As long as my body lives, I can be here, in this world. I hardly ever go back to my body any more. The world is so big, so full of wonder, I cannot let myself be held prisoner. Unlike corporeal friends, I can be with you anywhere, anytime. And there is so much I can share with you, because I can go places you cannot."
I could scarce believe her words. Was this really happening? I turned and looked at myself in the mirror, seeing us both.
"If you are a spirit, why do I see you in my mirror?
"Because I reveal myself to you," she said. "Only to you."
She clasped her hands before her, glancing down at them as if that helped set her resolve. "I have been many places, seen many people. There were many, male and female, I could have revealed myself to. But none as wondrous as you. When I saw you on the stage playing Juliet, I was, well, smitten. Do you understand?"
My legs went limp with shock. I feared I would collapse right there.
"I am so sorry, to keep it from you this way, but I had to be certain you would at least listen to me when I told you of my true nature."
Words collided in my mouth and I tried to capture the right ones to speak with.
"True nature?" I stammered. "Of body or of heart?"
She smiled. "Of both," she said.
I let a few moments pass, then laughed and shook my head. "All my life I have waited for the right woman ... the irony is not lost on me, that the woman I have waited for turns out to be a ghost, if I choose to believe you. If I don't, then I must believe you are mad, and that is just as ironic."
She looked me in the eye then, and to my astonishment, began to fade and flicker like an image in a magic lantern show. A sudden panic hit, for I did not want to lose her.
"Wait! Don't go!"
"I leave you to decide," she said, "whether to accept me, or not."
She slowly faded.
I was confused, excited, amazed, heartbroken. All these emotions engulfed me, threatening to leave total devastation. Yet, how could I not believe when the evidence was right before my eyes?
But she was gone.